United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken has responded to an alleged Chinese spying operation based in Cuba, saying it was part of a wider effort by Beijing that Washington has sought to stimy.
The statement on Monday comes days after a US official confirmed that China has been operating an intelligence unit in Cuba for years and upgraded it in 2019.
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Blinken on Monday said the Cuba operation was one of “a number of sensitive efforts by Beijing around the world to expand their overseas logistics basing collection infrastructure” – developments the administration of US President Joe Biden was briefed on upon taking office.
Beijing’s aim was to “project and sustain military power at a greater distance”, Blinken said.
On Friday, White House National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby had pushed back on a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) report that said Cuba and China had reached a new preliminary agreement to build a spy base on the island nation in exchange for “several billion dollars”.
“We have seen the report; it’s not accurate,” he told the Reuters news agency, without specifying what was incorrect.
A US official, speaking on background, on Saturday told reporters that while Beijing had long operated intelligence collection facilities on the island, “this is an ongoing issue and not a new development”.
Kirby on Monday stood by his earlier comments, saying that the framing of the original report was indeed “inaccurate”, but that he was unable to then provide further context because it had not been declassified.
“We were as forthcoming as we should have been at the time the first stories appeared,” he said, speaking at the White House.
Cuba’s Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, on Twitter, had called the report “slanderous speculation”.
Meanwhile, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson last week accused the US of “spreading rumours and slander”.
Blinken, speaking beside his Italian counterpart on Monday, did not reference the WSJ report or its content.
Instead, the top US diplomat referred to the spying as a years-long issue, suggesting that the response by the administration of former US President Donald Trump had been inadequate.
“It was our assessment that despite awareness of the basing efforts and some attempts to address the challenge in the past administration, we weren’t making enough progress on this issue,” he said, “and we needed a more direct approach.”
Blinken, who is expected to visit Beijing later this month, said he “can’t get into every step” the Biden administration has taken to counter China’s spying.
“But the strategy begins with diplomacy. We’ve engaged governments that are considering hosting PRC [People’s Republic of China] bases at high levels. We’ve exchanged information with them,” he said.
“Our experts assess our diplomatic efforts have slowed down this effort by the PRC, it’s something that we’re very carefully monitoring,” he added.
Communist-controlled Cuba and China have had stable relations for years, and have pursued trade and development initiatives together.
The US has imposed an arms embargo on Cuba for decades, despite regular condemnation from the United Nations General Assembly.
Meanwhile, Washington’s relations with Beijing have grown increasingly fraught in recent years, embodied in an imbroglio earlier in the year over an alleged spy balloon that drifted over the US.
The latest revelations come as several Latin American countries in recent years have moved to officially recognise China, with critics accusing Beijing of leveraging financial support to strengthen ties.